INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – A few reporters had wandered over to Rock Ya-Sin’s cubicle in the locker room, interested in how the rookie was dealing with his rookie season in general and his most recent outing in particular.
His most recent outing was a shining example of rookie growing pains: five penalties in coverage – one was declined – for 56 yards, and three receptions by Denver’s Courtland Sutton that yielded 72 yards.
As Ya-Sin was about to offer a calm, thoughtful recap of the good and the not-so-good, Darius Leonard walked past and offered a lifeline of sorts.
Rock, you tell ‘em it’s football. It happens, Rock.
It was difficult to determine whether Ya-Sin heard Leonard’s verbal support. But Leonard’s message was clear.
Stuff happens. Whether you’re a rookie – Ya-Sin was the Indianapolis Colts’ first pick in the April draft, No. 34 overall after Chris Ballard traded out of round 1 – or a veteran, there are going to be days worthy of gold stars and days worth stuffing in the back of the closet.
Ya-Sin, 23, is one of the youngest Colts, but that’s one aspect of the NFL he’s quickly come to terms with.
“I’ve had ups and downs,’’ he said Wednesday. “I’ve been playing a lot, matched up against good players, No. 1 players every week. I’ve got to continue to grow and not get frustrated.’’
Talk with any cornerback playing at the highest level and he’ll mention one undeniable, critical attribute: a short memory. A good play? Move on. A bad one? Move on.
There were too many of the former and not enough of the latter in Sunday’s 15-13 win over the Broncos. He’s been penalized six times this season, tied for the second-most by a defensive back.
“I’m not going to let a few plays or one game define my whole season and stop me from growing,’’ Ya-Sin said. “What people are saying, I don’t care. I’m just trying to get better. I’m accountable to the guys in this locker room, my teammates, the guys whose names are up here.’’
He tapped the nameplate above his cubicle.
“They drafted me for a reason,’’ he said. “I came in and competed and won a starting spot for a reason. I’ve earned the respect of my coaches and my teammates for a reason.’’
Defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus has talked with his rookie corner in the aftermath of the Denver game. He emphasized the importance of Ya-Sin remaining aggressive and physical while also having better technique “at the top of the route’’ and “what was going on in terms of the hands, my footwork and my eyes and those basic fundamentals.’’
“I talk to all the guys about that when they have a day where they had a mistake or two and ‘What did you learn from that?’’’ Eberflus said. “The biggest thing from performance as a coach or a player after that performance is really not necessarily the score because you can’t change that.
“But you can change the next time you go out. What are you going to do now going forward from that adversity or from that situation? He’s just going to learn from it and move forward and get better from it.’’
Ya-Sin’s travails were highlighted coming out of the Denver game, but they shouldn’t taint what’s been an active rookie season individually and collectively. He’s part of the latest Ballard draft class that’s making an immediate and significant impression.
In fact, he’s been the busiest on defense, rookie or otherwise.
Ya-Sin has started five of seven games and logged the most defensive snaps (374 of 433 — 84%). Kenny Moore II is next (81% with one missed game) followed by Anthony Walker (78%).
Seven of the 10 picks are on the active roster. The exceptions: center Javon Patterson (on IR with a knee injury), defensive end Gerri Green (practice squad) and offensive tackle Jackson Barton (practice squad).
In what’s become the norm, the rookies – free agents Shakial Taylor and wideout Ashton Dulin bump the number to nine – aren’t just taking up space. Four have started at least one game, led by Ya-Sin (five), linebacker Bobby Okereke (four) and safety Khari Willis (three). Ya-Sin, Okereke, Willis and Ben Banogu have appeared in all seven games, and linebacker E.J. Speed in six.
Marvell Tell III had been on the field for three defensive snaps in the first six games, then logged 37 against the Broncos as Pierre Desir was out with a lingering hamstring injury. Okereke started three games at MIKE while Leonard was sidelined with a concussion, then made his first start at SAM ‘backer against Denver.
Banogu logged zero defensive snaps at Kansas City, but his workload increased to 13 against Houston and a season-high 36 against Denver. He applied the exclamation mark to Sunday’s win with a sack/forced fumble of Joe Flacco on the Broncos’ final desperation drive.
“I don’t see myself as a rookie,’’ Banogu said. “I see myself as a football player that’s on the Colts that was brought here to help this team win.’’
At one point while they were reviewing the Denver game, Frank Reich and Ballard noticed an oddity on defense.
“We’ve got five rookies on the field at one time,’’ Reich said. “We’re playing winning football. We have a defensive showing like we did (Sunday), which was an outstanding defensive showing, and we’ve got five rookies on the field at one time.’’
In Reich’s mind, “rookie’’ is a designation of a player’s experience, not his standing with the team.
“Once a guy makes the team,’’ he insisted, “I consciously make an effort not to put that label on our players who are first-year players because I think you kind of tend to play up to what you’re labeled.
“Once the season starts, in my mind there are no rookies. The expectation is high for everybody and you don’t get that free pass of, ‘That’s a rookie mistake.’ We don’t give that pass away.’’
This marks the second straight season the Colts have leaned heavily on the work of Ballard and his scouting staff in mining the draft
Last season, Indy led the NFL in the percentage of offensive and defensive snaps handled by rookies: 22%. The Baltimore Ravens were next at 13%.
The Colts started five rookies in the season opener, the most in their Indy era: Leonard, Quenton Nelson, Braden Smith, Skai Moore and Jordan Wilkins. By season’s end, 11 rookies had started at least one game. Leonard and Nelson were the first rookie teammates to be named first-team All-Pro since Chicago’s Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus in 1965.
“Once you get thrown into the fire, you’re not a rookie anymore,’’ Leonard said. “You’ll still be classified a rookie, but once you start getting all the reps, once you start believing in yourself, when your teammates start believing in you, that’s when you say, ‘OK, there’s no excuses anymore.’
“There’s no rookie excuses. You need to step up to the plate and be a man.’’
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